29 May 2006

Anatolian toponymy 2: from Constantinople to Istanbul

Take me back to Constantinople
No, you can't go back to Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople

Istanbul (Not Constantinople), first recorded by The Four Lads in 1953

On this day in 1453, the Ottomans, under the command of Sultan Mehmet II, took Constantinople, ending the more than 1100 year-old Byzantine Empire.

The name Constantinople ("City of Constantine") comes from the name of the Byzantine emperor Constantine, who around 330 A.D. rebuilt the earlier city of Byzantium.

This mosaic from Haghia Sophia, built around 532 A.D. by the emperor Justinian in Constantinople shows the emperors Justinian (left) and Constantine (right) presenting to the Virgin Mary what appear to be models of Haghia Sophia and the city, respectively. Almost immediately after the city fell, the Ottomans converted Haghia Sophia to a mosque, but rather than destroy its mosaics, they plastered over them. Haghia Sophia, with its mosaics restored,
is now a museum. This picture is from a slide I took in 1987.

To its residents, Constantinople was the city without a need to further specify. Thus, the best explanation for the obscure origin of its present name Istanbul, which actually has no meaning in Turkish, is the Greek phrase Ης την Πόλη (Is tin Poli = "to the city"). It is believed that the Ottoman Turks, upon repeatedly hearing that phrase, started using it as a name.

This is supported by what appears to be a similar derivation: Istanköy, the Turkish name of the Greek island of Kos. (Köy means village, but istan is meaningless.)

However, Constantinople didn't become Istanbul right after its fall. It had many other names throughout the Ottoman centuries, including Dersaadet (used until the early 20th century), Islambol ("Plenty of Islam", obviously a derivation from the meaningless Istanbul) and Kostantiniye, "City of Kostantin" from Arabic.

Sultan Mehmet II, a.k.a. Mehmet the Conqueror, in a painting attributed to the Venetian painter Gentile Bellini (1429-1507). The original is in the National Gallery in London, England. For a discussion of this painting in a historical context, read this Guardian article.

Note: To properly view the Greek characters, set the encoding of your browser to Unicode, UTF-8. If you are using another browser, read the comments to this post.

Many thanks to Yorgi Sangiouloglou for his help with Greek.


Duane said...

Perhaps εις την πόλη is better than Ης την Πόλη. Unless there is some Modern Greek usage (and there may well be), I think ης is the second person singular imperfect indicative (or subjunctive) of the verb ειμι which means "to be." εις is a preposition meaning "to" or the like.

pascal said...

Why'd they change it? I can't say. That's nobody's business but the turks...


You may be right, Duane, but it's all Greek to me.

NASSOS said...

Hello. Duane is right. Anyway do you have any idea where I can find to dounload the CD "Fropm Constantinople to Istanbul" a travel in heart of Europe. I think it is produced in France. Ig you have any idea please send it to papanasos@gmail.com. Tesekkurler arkadas..


Nassos: I am not familiar with that CD, but it is available for sale on several Internet stores.

NASSOS said...

Tesekkurler arkadas

Louise said...

That cd is sensational, Nassos. I hope you got one by now. I happened to find a library copy without really knowing what it was - just borrowed it on the title, and I've got a thing for near eastern pop - and after hearing a few tracks I knew I'd have to make a copy. The booklet was gone so I don't know anything much about the people involved. You can't even get it on Amazon; it should find much better circulation!